Preparing Rations - The Forged Pass - Concealed in Sight of Prison - " Ten O'Clock and All's Well " - Crossing the Sabine River - Crossing the Bridge at the Mill - The Blood-Hounds on Our Trail - Run Into a Trap - Hounds Baffled - Escape - Man with a Gun - Passing Around a Village - An All Night Tramp - Moonlight View of the Country - Hounds on the Trail Again - Narrow Escape from the Hounds - Parching Corn Under Difficulties - Lost in a Dark Swamp - Waiting for the Moon to Rise.
THE Regiment had served four months in prison since our capture, and the month of August, with its hot and sultry days, had arrived, which, with the smoke of the hundreds of fires, made the over-crowded prison-pen tenfold more uncomfortable than during the preceding months. Up to this time we had submitted to our fate with a calm resignation, for the reason that we had received our daily allowance of favorable exchange rumors, (received principally via "grape-vine lines,") but faint hearts began to complain of "hope deferred," when the rebel papers brought the cheering intelligence that, "owing to the difficulty in regard to the exchange of negro soldiers, there would be no more exchange of prisoners. " The prospect of a speedy exchange was all that induced me to remain in Camp Ford, but my last hope had now departed; therefore my mind was speedily made up to leave the prison at the first favorable opportunity. After a consultation with Lieut. W. J. Srofe, of my Regiment, we agreed to undertake the trip together. We had, however, scarcely made the preliminary arrangements for the journey, when we received the information that the rebels were going to send us hundreds of miles into the interior of Texas, and they did partly execute the threat by sending 600 of our number to Hempstead, 250 miles south-west. This event nerved us up to prompt action, but we had a difficult task before us, as many re-captured Union soldiers can testify.
At prison headquarters they kept a pack of bloodhounds, with which they circled around the stockade, if they discovered that any one had escaped. But, even if successful in getting away from the prison hounds, we had to travel hundreds of miles to our lines, through a strange and hostile country; yet, in spite of all these difficulties and disadvantages we were determined to make an effort to gain our liberty, let the consequences be what they might.
Before that important step could be taken, a great many arrangements had to be made. We had to procure butternut clothes to wear, in order to pass for rebel soldiers, when necessary. We also had our maps of the country to copy; to bake crackers, dry our beef, etc., until about the 17th of August, when everything was in readiness. The route that we considered the most favorable was to strike for Little Rock, Ark., distant 300 miles north-east.
We then made arrangements with Robert Barnett, of my Regiment, (who was a kind of trader and smuggler between us and the guards,) to bribe a sentry to let us out after night. I did not like the idea of getting out in that manner, but that seemed to be our only chance. My plan was to forge a pass and go out, but that week no one was permitted to go out of the stockade, pass or no pass; therefore, the only feasible plan was to bribe a guard to let us out after night.
Barnett succeeded in making arrangements for us two or three nights in succession, but when the time came for action, the guards had either been removed, or they were watched so closely that we could not carry out our plan. At the same time I felt rather uncomfortable, when I reflected upon the idea of trusting myself in a rebel's hands. I was afraid of treachery, as they had, on several occasions, accepted bribes to let prisoners out, and when they had their pay, they would fire on those whose bribes they had taken.
On the morning of the 20th, the Colonel commanding issued passes again, to let a few out at a time. I borrowed one, and hastily made an exact copy of it. The most difficult matter now was to get our two haversacks, filled with dried beef and crackers, outside of the prison, as we dared not be seen with them when we were ready to leave. The custom of the prison commander was to let ten men out each day with the wood-wagon, to cut and load the fuel that was hauled into the stockade. They had to give their parole that they would not escape while at work.
The men that were to go out that day were members of Lieut. Srofe's company, and he arranged to go out with them. When they were ready to start, they came to our shanty, and we gave each one of them a portion of our provisions, which they hid about their persons. After they arrived in the woods, our rations were put in the haversacks and hid in a tree-top, about half a mile east from the prison. At noon, Lieut. Srofe returned with his party, and after partaking of a hasty dinner, we bade farewell to our most intimate friends, who knew our plans, and started for the prison-gate. On presenting our pass to the sentinel, Lieut. Srofe and myself were permitted to pass out of the stockade.
We had decided beforehand, that if we succeeded in getting out, we would go to the prison hospital, which was about a quarter of a mile west of the stockade, in charge of our own nurses, and remain there until evening. To reach the hospital, we had to pass by the quarters of the prison commander. He was sitting in front of his office as we passed by, but he was not aware how we got out. We were scarcely out of sight, however, when he sent orders to the guards not to allow any more out that day, whether they had passes or not. He supposed his adjutant had issued too many passes for one day. After reaching the hospital, by the advice of a slave, we procured two large pieces of soap, to rub our feet with, if the hounds should get on our track. We did not consider it safe to remain in the hospital until evening, therefore decided to go into the woods and conceal ourselves until night. We selected a place near a large field, about one mile west of the prison, and hid in the brush until dark.
We now had a difficult task to perform, to circle around the rebel camp and find our rations, which Lieut. Srofe had hid that morning, half a mile east of the prison, and at the same time avoid the rebel pickets, stationed around in the woods. We succeeded in passing around the rebel camp, where about 600 Confederate guards were quartered, without meeting with any accident.
We were guided altogether by the noise from the prison, which sounded like the hum of a large city. When we reached the neighborhood in which Lieut. Srofe thought he had concealed the provisions, we began to search for our haversacks, but there were many tree-tops lying around, and it being very dark, it was a difficult task to find the right one. The guards at the prison called out: "Eight o'clock, and all's well," and then "Nine o'clock, and all's well," and still we had not found our rations. We began to get discouraged, although we knew that we could not be a great distance from them, for the reason that we had found some of the crackers which had been dropped in the morning. After a short rest we began the search again, and just as the guards called out, "Ten o'clock, and all's well," Lieut. Srofe called me, saying: "I have found our haversacks."
We were so overjoyed at finding our provisions, that we did not hear any one coming up behind us, until they were so near that we could not run and hide, but dropped flat on the ground as quick as possible. The next moment two men on horseback galloped by, not more than ten feet from where we lay. After procuring our rations, we went to a small stream near by, and ate our supper.
We were now ready for a three hundred mile tramp, which finally turned out to be nearer six hundred. Each one had a butternut suit and a haversack, and between us, one case-knife, one tin cup, one tin plate, for parching corn, one box of matches, pencil and paper, to keep a diary of our travels. Each of us also had a map of Texas and Arkansas, which we had copied.
After finishing our supper, we traced up the north star, and took a north-east course for the land of freedom; but we soon found traveling through the dark woods, with only the stars to guide us, slow and tedious. After traveling two or three miles, we struck a creek bottom, covered with vines, briars and fallen timber. Our clothes received rough handling, and the north star was not to be seen very often, through the tall pines. Our first object now was to get out of the woods into the cleared land, or on a road, as we were now well convinced that little progress could be made by traveling through the forest at night. After searching around for two or three hours, we struck a path which led us into one of the main roads, and fortunately it ran north-east. There was nothing now to prevent us from making rapid progress on our journey.
During the night we passed six plantations; but being afraid to pass by them on the road, we circled around to the rear of the houses, and then struck the road again. When we arrived at the seventh, it was near daylight, and being considerably worn out, we passed around to a piece of timber in the rear of the buildings, then hid under some bushes in a fence-corner, and laid down on the ground to sleep. We supposed we had traveled about eleven miles during the night, and were now about that distance from the stockade.
All of our subsequent calculations in regard to the distance traveled, were based on our three years experience of marching in the army, and by referring to our maps, when we came to large streams. How near correct our estimates were of the distance traveled, will be shown at the end of the journey.
When we awoke in the morning, Sunday, Aug. 21st, we were very chilly, as it was foggy and damp. We built a fire, parched some corn, and ate breakfast. We thought it best to commence on parched corn, the first day, to save our dried beef and crackers. At about 8 o'clock, A. M., we heard the voices of some persons coming toward us. We began to get uneasy; nearer and nearer they came; I raised up cautiously and looked around, when I saw a man, woman, and a little boy, coming directly toward us.
It was too late to get away, so we gave up our cause as lost. I kept my eyes on them until they were nearly opposite us, walking along a path about fifteen feet from where we were concealed. I gave up all hope of escape, and buried my face in my hands. It was hard to give up so soon. But strange to say, they passed by without seeing us, and after they had passed a short distance, they turned to the fence, and commenced picking wild grapes, and talking very busily the whole time. As soon as they were out of sight, we gathered up our haversacks and ran into the woods, and hid in the underbrush.
Our night's travel and morning adventure convinced us that the task we had before us was beset with danger and difficulties, and that it would require all our cunning, energy and patience, to be successful in our undertaking. That Sunday proved to be a very long day to us. We conversed with each other, but not above a whisper; tried to sleep, but could not - too much excitement. We found it very tiresome to remain in one place all day, we therefore concluded to travel in the day time after that, by traveling only in the woods and keeping a sharp look-out for any one that happened to be abroad.
In the evening we left our hiding-place, and in a short time struck the same road that we had turned off from in the morning. We followed it until about nine o'clock, P. M., when we came to a mill, where the road crossed the creek on a bridge which was attached to the mill. We heard persons talking within, therefore did not venture too near, but turned off to the right in a heavy-timbered bottom, thinking that we could circle around it to avoid crossing on the bridge. After trying in vain for about an hour to make the circuit, we came back very cautiously and crossed on the bridge.
At about eleven o'clock, P. M., we reached Sabine river. We rolled a log into the stream, then one of us would get at one end of the log and swim to the opposite shore with it, while the other would hold to the log with one hand, and with the other hold our provisions out of the water. We made five trips before we had our clothes and rations over. After we had crossed, we had some difficulty in passing around some persons that were camped by the roadside. At about two o'clock, A. M., we turned off into the woods to remain until daylight - distance traveled, twelve miles.
August 22d, at daybreak, we were awakened by the yelping of hounds on our track. We sprang to our feet, grasped our haversacks and started off at the top of our speed. At one time we thought that they had lost our trail, but we soon discovered that we were very much mistaken. About every half-hour we would rub soap on the bottom of our shoes, and on the grass. Whenever they reached such a spot, it checked them for some time. The race continued until about eleven o'clock, A. M., when we came to a small piece of woods in the shape of a triangle, with cleared land all around it, excepting one of the angles that joined the woods we were in, and a number of buildings on the opposite side. Not knowing what was ahead of us, we entered this piece of timber; but we soon found that we could not cross the fields in sight of the houses, and to return the way we came would take us back towards the hounds, who were now gaining on us fast. We had, unknowingly, run into a trap. To pass by the houses was certain capture, or to turn back the way we came in, and get over into the adjoining woods, was equally hazardous, but we had no time to lose, and our only hope seemed to be to get back into the main woods before the hounds cut off our retreat. We started back, running at full speed, to reach the entrance before the hounds. It was like running into our own destruction, and at every yelp of the hounds, my heart thumped so loud that I thought I could almost hear it. Fortunately, we gained the entrance first, but had scarcely entered the adjoining woods, when the whole pack of hounds went howling into the piece of timber that we had just left, and the hunters on horseback, yelling, brought up the rear. We heard the dogs for some time afterward, but did not know whether they followed us any longer or not. No doubt they thought we were concealed about the negro quarters, and searched for us until they became tired, and then gave up the chase.
In the afternoon we concluded to halt and take a rest, as we were nearly exhausted, having traveled about fifteen miles on a run, since daylight, and not tasted anything since the evening before. We built a fire and parched some corn, and after a few hours rest we started again. One would generally take the lead, and keep the direction of the sun, while the other followed, a short distance behind. Towards evening, after crossing a small stream, we struck a road that led north-east, so we concluded to wait until night, then follow it.
As soon as it was sufficiently dark to venture out, we pursued our journey until we came to a road that we thought ran more directly north-east than the one we were on. We turned off and followed it for about half a mile, when it terminated at a plantation. We then circled completely around the buildings, but the road was nowhere to be found, which convinced us that it was only a private road, leading to the plantation. Turning back, we took the Main road again, and traveled until towards morning, then turned off into the woods to rest; distance traveled that day, twenty five miles.
August 23d, we started at daylight and traveled but a short distance, when we hid in a tree-top for the day. Some noisy children came into the woods and routed us out several times, but they did not discover us. We left at dark, and met two persons early in the evening, but concealed ourselves before they discovered us. Soon afterward, a man on horseback, with a gun in his hands, galloped furiously by. He came on us so suddenly that there was no time to hide; we therefore dropped flat on the ground by the road-side until he had passed.
The road which we were on did not suit us, as it ran in every direction except the way we wanted to travel - north-east. Finally it terminated in a road that ran east and west. Taking an eastern direction, we came to a small village. In trying to circle around it, we ran into a wagon-maker's shop. It was quite dark, for the moon had not risen yet; we tried to find a road that would take us north-east; we found one that ran north, and followed it for several miles, when it turned south, and intersected the old road again. At last we found a road that took us north-east, through a rich country, and by the light of the moon, which now shone nearly as bright as day, we could see the country for miles. We continued our journey until near morning before we halted; distance, twenty miles.
At daylight, August 24th, we found ourselves in an exposed position. We therefore hid in a large green tree-top, that was lying on the ground near by, and went to sleep again. Just as the sun rose, Lieut. Srofe awoke me, saying: "The hounds are on our track again!" On, on they came, yelping and howling as on a former occasion. They were too close on us to attempt to get away from them this time, and what made the matter worse, there were no small trees close by to climb, out of their reach, so we laid still, awaiting our fate.
When the hounds got opposite us, instead of turning off into the woods from the road, as we had done, they kept straight ahead. It was quite evident after they had passed us, that they were off our track. They now quit barking, but kept running around in every direction. Presently two men on horseback, came up, blowing their hunter's horns and urging up the dogs. When we saw them pass by, we took courage and started off in an opposite direction as fast as we could run. We had, however, proceeded but a short distance, when we heard them coming after us, with the old yelp. It now became an exciting race, and our re-capture seemed to be only a question of time. Rubbing soap on the bottom of our shoes did excellent service again, in breaking the scent of the hounds. Whenever we reached a stream we dashed into the water, and followed its course for a considerable distance, for the purpose of misleading the dogs. Twice we were about to give ourselves up, but each time, after taking a short rest, we started off to try it once more. For the third time we halted. Panting, and almost out of breath, we stood by the small trees that we had selected to climb, out of reach of the hounds. Our preparations to surrender were completed, and the hounds were gaining on us fast, when I asked Lieut. Srofe the question: "Camp Ford, or Little Rock?" His answer came quick, "Little Rock!" and grasping his haversack, he started at the top of his speed, and I followed after.
It was nearly noon when we struck a bayou. We found a shallow place and waded to the opposite shore. After we had crossed, we felt secure, with such a large body of water between us and our pursuers, and our trail obliterated where we entered the bayou. They now began to lose ground, and finally the baying of the hounds ceased altogether. Being very hungry, and nearly run down, we selected the first favorable locality, built a fire, and parched some corn. While thus busily engaged, we heard some persons approaching and talking very loud. We had no more than put out our fire and hid ourselves, when two men passed near by, without, however, discovering us. A short time afterwards, a hunting party returned to the prison, and reported that they had killed a Yankee Major and a Lieutenant, across the Sabine river!
We started again at dark and followed the road for a few hours,
when it entered a very dark and gloomy-looking swamp. We could
only keep in the road by following the wagon-ruts. Finally, the
road terminated at a small patch of corn, in a clearing, in the
midst of a heavy-timbered bottom. We groped around on our hands
and knees, trying to find a road that would take us farther, but
all in vain. At last we decided to lay down and snatch a few hours
sleep until the moon rose. We awoke when the moon was about half
an hour high. It was now light, compared to what it had been,
but still we could find no road that would take us any farther.
We then retraced our steps, and soon struck a road that we had
missed before, which took us north-east. We knew now that we were
nearing a large stream, from the quantity of water around us.
Near daylight we found that we were correct. The stream proved
to be Little Cypress River, distance twenty miles.